Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

December 18, 2001
        Dear Friends of Art,
Season's Greetings and Peace to You!

Christmas is a good time for pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the political situation there is such that very few people venture the journey and we sincerely advise you not to risk it. Instead we invite you to make a virtual journey with the Gospel according to St. Luke. Our guide through the trip is our guest from Jerusalem Dr. Victoria Vekselman.

Christmas Tour of the Holy Land

By Victoria Vekselman, Ph D

The Christmas tour with the Gospel according to St. Luke starts at Nazareth, the town of the Annunciation, passes through Ein Karem, where Mary met Elizabeth and where John the Baptist was born, and ends in Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth.

Nazareth is a town in Galilee, where, more than 2000 years ago, a young Jewish maiden, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph, an artisan descended from the House of David, where a divine messenger announced that mankind's long expectation will be fulfilled, where Jesus spent his youth and was named by his contemporaries Jesus of Nazareth. In the local languages Christians in general are called Nazarenes (Nazara in Arabic and Nozrim in Hebrew).

The Basilica of the Annunciation was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio and built in 1960-1969. The project became possible thanks to contributions from Christians and the cooperation of countless artists from all over the world. It's also the result of a compromise found by the Catholic Church and the State of Israel. The Basilica towers over lower Nazareth and could be seen from any place. You can find it without any help. Sixty-five meters long, twenty-seven wide and fifty-five high, it is the biggest building of its kind in the Middle East. However, in 2000, the Muslim majority of the town claimed its right to the square in front of the Basilica in order to build there a mosque of equal size, or even bigger, to prove that their religion is greater. Sorry, modern political reality distracts our attention. The Basilica of the Annunciation houses the Grotto of the Annunciation, where the mystery took place. "And in the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent by God into a city of Galilee, named Nazareth."  (Luke 1:26)  It is all that remains of the house, where the angel appeared before Mary, and the former churches built on the spot. The XVIII century marble altar bears the Latin inscription “Verbum caro hic factum est” - The Word was here made flesh. Near the altar stands an ancient column, which traditionally marks the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary.

Our next stop is Ein Karem, in Biblical times a village and nowadays a district of Jerusalem. In Ein Karem, the priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth had a summer residence. There St. Luke brought the pregnant Mary to see her cousin, Elizabeth. "And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste into a city of Judah, and entered into the house of Zachariah, and saluted Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-40). On the spot where the house was situated there is now The Church of the Visitation. The present Church was built in 1935 by the Italian architect Barluzzi on the remains of former churches, the first of which was built in the fourth century A.D. and later destroyed.  Inside the church, there is a fresco depicting the visit of the Virgin Mary and below are the altar and the ancient well. In the crypt of the church there is a rock where, according to tradition, the infant John was hidden from the soldiers of the tyrant Herod. "Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home," to Nazareth. (Luke 1:56)

"When the time came for Elizabeth's child to be born, she gave birth to a son." (Luke 1:57) He was named John. In Ein Karem you could see at least two grottos that are considered to be the place where John the Baptist was born. In the Church of St. John the Baptist there is the Grotto of the Benedictus. A marble star beneath the altar bears a Latin inscription:  “Hic precursor Domini natus est” (Here was born the precursor of the Lord). The Russian Orthodox Monastery also claims to have a grotto, where St. John the Baptist was born.

After Ein Karem we go to Bethlehem, where St. Luke eventually brings Mary and Joseph. According to Luke, they had to make the journey because of the census throughout the Roman world. “Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child.” (Luke 2:4-5)
The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem they could not find room in an inn so Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable. Above this cave the first church was built  in the 4th century A.D. by the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena. The church, the Basilica of Nativity, was partially destroyed in the Samaritan revolt of the 6th century. The present church was built in 530 A.D. by the Byzantine Emperor Justian.
The Basilica of the Nativity  has the appearance of a powerful fortress. Most churches were destroyed by Persians during their occupation in 614, except for the Basilica of the Nativity. Apparently it was saved from desecration because of the mosaic then on the facade of the church. The Three Wise Men, or Magi, who came to adore the Infant, were depicted in Persian clothing; it is believed that this stopped the Persians from ruining the church. This fact contended the Church in the necessity of having icons.
One can enter the Basilica through the Door of Humility.  This entrance was lowered by partly sealing the Crusader arch sometime during the 17th century to ensure that Muslims could not enter the church on horseback. Today's visitor must bend almost double to gain admission to the church.

The Grotto of the Nativity. The silver star in the Grotto of the Nativity denotes the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born. The inscription reads: Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est - Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.

St. Matthew tells that Joseph brought his young wife immediately to Bethlehem, because according to the prophecies the new Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the town of the King David. But St. Luke makes the couple travel a little: Nazareth - Ein Karem - Nazareth - Bethlehem. Why? St. Luke wanted all the prophecies about the Messiah to be fulfilled. Thus, the prophet Isaiah speaks about ‘the sprout from dry earth’. ‘Nezer’ means sprout or flower, the name of the town of Nazareth comes out of it. The precursor of Messiah was to be from the house of Cohen, and John the Baptist  was to be born in Ein Karem. To make all ends meet, St. Luke had to change the plot and dates despite the historical facts. Thus, Herod the Great died in the 4th B.C., and the census was held in the country in the 6th century A.D., that is, ten years after Herod's death. St. Luke mixed up the chronology, putting the date of Jesus' birth 10 years earlier.

During our trip in every place - Nazareth, Ein Karem, Bethlehem - we saw grottos. This “cave life” puzzles the people, who do not know the landscape of the Holy Land. The pictures of the famous masters give us different variants of the Infant's place of birth from a wooden barn by Bosch to a cave by Giorgione and Roman ruins by Martini. In the Holy Land we show the pilgrims the man-made caves. These are what is left from the service rooms of the houses. The excavations in Jerusalem, Capernaum and Korazine (both of the palaces and houses of common people) show that the living rooms were built over the "basements" - caves quarried in soft limestone. Not only food storage's, but also rooms for cattle and sheep were under the earth. The houses of the poor also had living rooms in the "basements".

St. Luke writes that when Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem, "she brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:  6-7)  Of course, from the point of view of making the plot more dramatic it sounds correct: the homeless couple gives birth to a child, and both Kings and common shepherds hurry to pay him their homage, driven by the star. The plot was to correspond to Isaiah's prophecies. But what was the reality? First of all I doubt that there was an inn in the small town of Bethlehem, second, Joseph came to his relatives and, in accordance with the Middle East rules, settling a relative, even a far removed relative, in an inn was out of question. Then, why does Mary find herself giving birth to a child in a cave, and Elizabeth too, by the way?

According to the Jewish Tora, a woman is considered ritually unclean during her periods and for some time after the birth of a child. "Ritually unclean" women were not allowed to do everyday housekeeping work, because everything they touched also became "unclean". These humiliating rules in practice gave a woman legal right for full repose in some difficult periods of her life. The other women of the family did the housework, and that kept the family together. In this way it is clear why women in the Middle East were not allowed to give birth to children in the living rooms.

Therefore, Joseph brought his wife to the parental house in Bethlehem to get some help for his wife from his relatives. As the family was poor, Mary got an underground service room for her childbirth next to the room for livestock. Of course this explanation sounds very prosaic, and does not correspond to the spirit of the high tragedy of early Christianity. Any detailed analysis of a literary work leads to destruction of the work, we kill the charm and trustworthiness of the tale. That is why a romantic story is preferable to the real one. Which you care to believe, though, is your free choice.
Victoria Vekselman, Ph.D.

Dear Friends, you can write to Victoria at vicvekselman@yahoo.com

In the new additions you'll find a section of the Italian Early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.

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